“Am I Crazy?” How Abusers Gaslight You To Insanity
Did your abuser ever make you feel crazy? Is there someone in your life who consistently makes you doubts yourself, your memory, or your experiences? Do you ever find yourself wondering if you are “losing it,” and if you can believe your own eyes?
If you answered, “yes” to any of these questions, you might be experiencing Gaslighting.
Gaslighting, sometimes known Crazy-Making, is the act of “caus[ing] a person to doubt his or her sanity through the use of psychological manipulation” (1).
The term “Gaslighting” was first coined in the drama, Gaslight. In this 1938 drama-turned-movie, husband Gregory attempts to cause his wife Paula and her friends to question her sanity by secretly removing pictures from the wall, hiding her personal belongings, and most famously dimming the gaslight in their home. When Paula notices the moved or missing items and the change in the gaslight brightness, Gregory asserts that it is all a figment of her imagination. The truth was that these things were in fact happening, and Gregory was doing them to cause Paula to doubt her reality and make her seem insane. (2)
Gaslighting is a common tactic that abusive people use to mentally manipulate their victim for the purpose of gaining power and control. Gaslighting can be subtle or it can be blatant. It can involve physically changing the victim’s surroundings, or simply denying facts or real memories and experiences.
I have encountered Gaslighting on a few occasions.
On one occasion, a man I was in a relationship with was holding my hand while we were walking in the dark. He said something intentionally hurtful, so I attempted to pull my hand away from him. He was stronger, so I could not get away until he decided he wanted to let go. When he finally released my hand he saw the scared look on my face. I said forcefully, “If I ever have to get away from you I have my ways!” He acted surprised and pretended he had no idea what I was talking about. He said, “I would never hurt you!”
In this instance of Gaslighting, his words said one thing (I would never hurt you), but his actions told me a different story (I am fine using physical force to restrain you).
Another time I was with this same man who I thought I would marry. We were talking about our wedding night and some of our expectations. I expressed fear and nervousness at the thought of sexual intimacy since I was a virgin and had very little knowledge of sex. I told him I wasn’t sure if I would be ready to have sex on the first night of our honeymoon. I told him I would probably need some time to ease into it. He looked at me and said, “that’s ok, we will go at your pace.” I asked for confirmation that my pace might include not having sex on our wedding night. He refused to confirm this. On another occasion, he point blank told me “I would not rape you on our wedding night, ” but he still declined to tell me that he would wait for my consent directly. This lack of response considerably confused and scared me.
This was a tricky Gaslighting move where he gave me mixed signals. He simultaneously told me “yes” and “no” at the same time to confuse me.
More recently I was telling a respected pastor about abuse I had suffered. At one point he indicated that he believed me and even sent me a long text message affirming this, but at a later time he told me “I believe you believe this happened to you, but I don’t believe this actually happened to you.” He was telling me I was crazy and delusional without directly using those words. He did this because I had revealed to him that I was going to go public with my story. He didn’t want this to happen, so he pretended he didn’t believe me and Gaslighted me to try to cause me to doubt my own reality. He then tried to make others believe that I was lying in hopes to continue Gaslighting me and those around me.
Thankfully, it didn’t work. I had surrounded myself with people who believed and affirmed me. Someone else, was there to witness the pastor’s behavioral changes and I had saved the text messages confirming his drastic change as representation of the facts.
Gaslighting is lying (creating new “facts”) or denying (pretending particular facts don’t exist) with the intent to change a victim’s sense of reality.
If you are experiencing Gaslighting, here are four things you can do to protect your sanity:
1. Trust Yourself
Trust your eyes. Trust your ears. Trust your gut. Trust your memory. You know what you saw, heard, felt, and experienced. Don’t let others make you doubt this.
2. Surround Yourself With Supportive People
Gaslighters work best when they can isolate you. In the first two experiences I described, I did doubt myself and the legitimacy of my feelings for a while. In the third example, I had support from both my husband and other friends and advocates, and that helped me to be sure of myself. If you smell Gaslighting, run. This is not the kind of person or people you need in your life. It will only hurt you.
3. Keep good records
If you must be in the presence of a gaslighter, keep good records. Take screenshots, save emails, text messages, and voicemails. Keep records, files, and receipts in safe places. This way you will have something to reference when the abusive person tries to insist on alternative facts.
4. Call It Out
When you see Gaslighting happening to you or others on a small relational scale or even on a larger scale such as in a church, organization, or government, call it out. Say what you saw, heard, felt, and experienced. Say it loudly. This not only helps you when you vocalize Gaslighting, but it also helps affirm others who may be starting to doubt their experience.